Gladiator Prison

     The guard opened the door and I shuffled into the dressing room. I was shackled hand and foot. “The key is on the table,” the guard said, and closed the door. I was alone in the windowless room.

     I didn’t notice whether the walls were Institutional Green or Institutional Gray. All I saw was the key to my shackles on a concrete table by the door to the Arena. Next to the key was a .357 magnum revolver and a Bowie knife in a custom holster for them both, one on each side, just as I had specified.

     It was hard to believe I was really here.

     I touched the holster before I unlocked my shackles. A wave of fear went through me and I had to hold onto the table to keep my balance. It was really going to happen. I could still back out if I wanted…I could go back to my old cell with no penalties…

     I closed my eyes and reminded myself what I could gain. I thought of endless revelry in the fanciest hotel in the world. The best food, the best booze and drugs, the best women. I hadn’t been in the same room with a woman for eight years.

     I looked at the door to the Arena and buckled on the holster over my prison coveralls. I felt foolish, like a little boy playing costumes. But this was real. On the other side of the door I would meet my Arena Team for the first time.

     I pulled open the door and stepped out into the Arena.

     I don’t know why I chose a team event. The big royalties are in the solo matches and novelty events, but you can choose any level to start out on. You can collect $20,000,000 a year for ten years if you’re successful in some of the novelty events, but the odds are hideously prohibitive against your success–especially if you were a rookie.

     The best deal for a beginner was a 50/50 odds, all-rookie event. You had the highest survival percentage, and you had a decent chance of making network money. The downside was that you didn’t earn much calendar time.

     I wanted to get some arena experience first before I tried for the big prizes. I guess I had a vague idea a team would be safer– I’d have a group of murderous hulks as bodyguards, even if I was on a suicide mission.

     So when I stepped through and saw the rest of my Event Squad, another wave of fear almost made my knees fail. This gang of jerks was my team? They were at the weapons counter rummaging frantically and strapping on guns and ammo belts and paid no attention to my entrance.

     I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought they would be hulking brutes. Instead they were shorter than average, shorter than ME, for god’s sake. I had four teammates: two old white guys, a tiny Mexican, and a woman. The woman wasn’t any prize: a heavyset blonde about 35 with bad acne scars and a fat ass.     

     She was the only one who looked up when I stepped out of the room into the Arena.

     We were in an alcove with a big wall of clear bulletproof glass blocking us from the main arena.  The weapons counter was a long shelf against the inner wall loaded with guns and ammunition and armor of all kinds and calibers. My teammates were strapping the weapons and equipment onto their bodies. They paid no attention to me. In just a few minutes the glass would slide out of the way and we would be on national TV.

     I stood and looked at the array of death tools…should I put on heavy armor? We had no idea what the terrain or parameters would be.

     “Is the pistol all you’re going to carry?” a voice said behind me. I whirled around and it was the woman. The other three team members ignored us and continued their frantic armamentation.

     “Um, no, I’m going to carry an Uzi, too,” I said, “and plenty of ammo.”   

     She gestured toward the other three. “They came out their doors with their .44 magnums in their hands. I noticed you had yours holstered.”


     “Weren’t you worried about somebody shooting you?” she said.   Sometimes a guy would get carried away with the freedom of the situation and start blasting his own teammates, but it was suicide. When the event started he’d be outnumbered 5 to 1. And Event payoffs are based on how many of the other team you kill, not your own.

     “Besides,” I said, “I don’t carry a .44 magnum. It’s too much gun for me. With a .357, I can hit what I’m aiming at. When I shoot a .44, I get hit in the forehead by the damned gun right after I pull the trigger.”

     She looked thoughtful and returned her .44 to the table and took a lighter gun.

     The loudspeaker said, “60 seconds to air time.”

     I hurried to the gun bench and picked an Uzi and racked in a clip and filled a backpack with ammo and put it on.

     I looked again at the others. Cripes, they didn’t look like a gang of desperate thugs.

     Then it was time. The announcer spoke: “Good evening. Tonight we will witness a ten-man, two-team assault event. According to the provisions of the Voluntary Capital Punishment Act, these convicted criminals will  now assert the voluntary nature of their participation in this event. Those of you who agree to participate in this event will now place your thumbprint on the affidavit panel as I call your names. If you have changed your mind, and do not want to participate, please return to your entry cell for departure procedures.”

     It was crazy of me to be here. This was my last chance to back out. The world seemed to focus down, and I was aware of every detail of the arena, the expressions on the faces of my teammates, the echoey loudspeaker voice reverberating inside the stadium, the hot dry smell of the hard-packed sand underfoot…


     Then the loudspeaker came on again and the announcer said, “Ten minute notice. The event will begin in ten minutes.

     “Each criminal will now go to the identification sensor plate and give it a good thumbprint when I read their name.”

     With no pause, the announcer said “William Anderson,” and one of the old farts moved to the sensor plate. He must have been 40, and he walked with a limp.

     “William Anderson, Muncie, Indiana. On a moonlit August night, William Anderson shot and killed a pregnant clerk during a bank robbery. Convicted of murder. Sentence: solitary confinement for life without possibility of parole.” Jurors love to hand out that sentence. They know your only way out is the Arena–which is the next best thing to suicide. On TV sets around the nation, video bits about his crime flashed across the screen. Our screen was behind bulletproof glass so we were not able to shoot it out.

     “Manuel Besquez, New York City. Kidnap & rape.” The Mexican had six kinds of rifles strapped across his back as he skittered toward the thumbprint plate. The announcer gave details of his crimes, and more scraps of videos were shown.

     “Terrence Cleveland, Miami,  Drugs; 3 assaults.” Another gray-haired white guy, except he was bald and fat. He jumped when they called his name.

     “Mary Whitlow, Covington, Kentucky. Murder.” The blonde trotted to the thumbprint plate, and then I recognized her. She’d been the darling of the tabloids after she poisoned her wealthy older husband.

     When Mary Whitlow was 23 she married this rich guy who was 57. They had a good time spending his money for a couple of years, but then he broke his ankle when they were skiing in Europe, and then he had a series of little strokes, and he didn’t go out any more.

     Mary suffered through it for a few years, but then she was 30 and saw her life slipping away, and she started going out dancing and meeting guys, and then the old fart died and she got all his money and she partied hard on it. She elbowed her way into the supermarket tabloids because of it.

     Then the old guy’s two children (who were left out of the revised will) had the body exhumed and examined with a new nuclear magnetic resonance tool, and they found poison. And Mary Whitlow was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

     Just like me.

     “Denver Ordway, Glendale, California. Murder and armed robbery.

     I jumped when he called my name and went to put my thumbprint on. For some reason I could feel my ears getting red and hot.

     It was the first time I was introduced to my team.

     Then they introduced the other team at the far corner of the arena, and I didn’t want to hear anything about them. They sounded like huge, bloodthirsty, kill-crazy convicts. It was my first time out of shackles in ten days. I did jumping jacks and stretched while the names were called.   

     Between my team and the other team was a 2-story wooden building in the center of the arena. Five trees surrounded it, and dozens of large rocks big enough to hide behind were scattered over the five acres of the arena.


     Next the announcer explained the event: “The two teams are equidistant from the central building. The goal of the game: on the second floor of the building is a control panel with a big switch. Whoever throws that switch first, wins the prize for his whole team.

     “After the glass rises, the teams will compete to be the first one to get to get into the building, go to the the switch and throw it. Survivors of the winning team get 6 months in Arena Hotel; survivors of the losing team get 1 month.”          

     The screen showed the interior of the building. It would be brutal: the switch was at the top of a flight of stairs, and there was nothing to hide behind. You would have a clear shot at anyone who was at the switch from anywhere inside the building.

     Then the announcer said, “We’ll be back after these messages,” and we had three and a half minutes before the glass slid up. I stared at the building.

     Manuel Besquez said, “I guess we should just charge the building and take it over, huh?”

     “You go ahead and charge,” I said. “I’m going to move from rock to rock and tree to tree.” I was fully willing to let the other team win. If I got out alive, I’d get a month’s stay at the Hotel, even if my team didn’t win. And right now a month sounded real good. Certainly better than standing out in the open and getting perforated by a machine gun.

     It’s safe inside Arena Hotel, at least fairly safe.  Every room is under surveillance. If convicts get out of hand, every room can be sealed off and filled with knockout gas. There are no weapons inside the prison. There are no guards. There is not much violence in the hotel, despite the murderous collection of psychopaths, because they have a professional outlet for their passions. It’s the most luxurious hotel in the world.

     Killing a fellow prisoner outside of the Arena meant forfeiture of all your remaining Hotel time and all your funds, and you were returned to solitary confinement without possibility of parole for not less than five years before you could apply for the Arena again.

     I’d take the month. After the month, I could either go back to the arena, or back to Lompoc for solitary confinement for the rest of my life. If I went back to Lompoc and then changed my mind and wanted to try the Arena again, I’d have to get on the waiting list again, which was currently 23 months.

     In solitary confinement you can work & earn money if you want. Using virtual reality tools, a convict could put his hands into waldo gloves and put on video goggles, and he would “be” in the work environment, able to perform manual labor by remote control.    

     More literate prisoners could do other services, word processing, bookkeeping, etc. on-line to earn money. No line of work was barred as long as these criterion were met:

  1. Prisoner’s on-line activity is all monitored.
  2. Job must be legal. No bookies, etc.
  3. No human contact on the job. You can work, but you’re still in solitary confinement.

     That’s what prison sentences meant in the new millennium. You have broken the rules of society; therefore, you are denied society for the length of your sentence. You may not even socialize with fellow prisoners.

     I saw Mary Whitlow moving from one of my teammates to another. We all were strung out against the wall as far away from each other as possible, except for her. I felt a surge of resentment that they’d have a girl in my Event. You never saw girls in Events.

     Then she was standing in front of me. “Can you dance?” she said.

     I stared at her. “Is that what you were asking the other guys?”

     “I got a plan,” she said. “Those guys don’t like it.” She explained: she wanted to treat the attack like a dance, moving in concert with the other team members. But the others didn’t dance.

     “This isn’t a dance,” I said. “Most of us are going to die.”

     “That’s right,” she said. “So why not go out dancing? Wouldn’t you rather dance for a moment rather than dying as a slinker?  Sitting in a cell is death, for me; I’d rather have the real thing. These other guys have already decided to die as meekly as possible. I say let’s go for it, and either win or die.”

     “So what’s your plan?”

     “When the glass goes up, let’s dance straight toward the building.”

     She looked at me a minute and I said nothing.

     “Well, it was just an idea,” she said. “Personally, I think that if you’re going to be reckless, you might as well follow through. Sanity and prudence aren’t the ticket in the Arena.”


     Then the glass was lifting and William, Manuel and Terrence and I darted behind the nearest tree or rock. Mary took off her shirt and stood out in the open dancing solo, and suddenly I said what the fuck and I joined her. And we started dancing toward the building, and we were on national tv, and the other team was apparently still hiding and nobody was shooting at us, and suddenly it was kind of fun, even if I was going to die shortly.

     And then we were at the building and we could see spurts of dust kicking up among the hiding places of Manuel and Terrence and William, who fired back occasionally.

     The building was 50 feet long and 25 feet wide; we were facing the broad side, but the doors were on the ends. I crouched by the corner of the building and snuck a look around and couldn’t see anybody. A bullet pinged off the dirt five feet away from me and I ducked back.

     “Well, we made it this far,” I said. Mary’s charge toward the central building was a preemptive bid: we controlled a wide angular field of defense, and the other team held back. Manuel and Terrence and William had good coverage of all angles of attack by the other side. We’d changed forever the rules of 5-on-5 strategy, the expert bettors said later. At least for rookie groups.

     Mary saw me staring at her breasts; she smiled. “So,” I said, “did you really poison that guy?”

     She looked at me a minute. “Yeah. How about you? What are you in for?”


     “I was riding with my brother, and he stopped at a 7-11 and said he needed a pack of cigarettes. I waited in the car. He had a gun. He held up the place and another customer turned out to be a cop, and he shot my brother and killed him. They gave me solitary and no parole.”

     “The arena is the only parole we’re going to get,” she said. “Say, what are you carrying a knife for, anyway?”

     “I bought it when I was a teenager, and I figured this would be the last time I would ever need it. It’s a Bowie knife. My mother still had it.” I pulled it out and showed her the wide, flat blade of highly polished steel.

     “Let me have it for a minute,” she said. I hesitated, then gave it to her. She went to the corner of the building and crouched low to the ground and stuck the knife around the corner and used it as a mirror to peek around. I kept staring at her butt and listened to the erratic bursts of gunfire. Nobody else had moved since our dashing dance.

     She backed away and stood up and grinned. “I spotted the hiding places of two of them.”  She dashed to the other corner and periscoped around it: “There’s the other three. They haven’t advanced an inch. They’re just as normal as the other guys on our team. I’m glad you danced with me, Denver.”

     Then she stood around the corner and started blasting with her Uzi. “Come on, shoot where I’m shooting, I’ve got them spotted. They’ll just duck, and while you pin them down, I’ll go in the door.

And we’ll win this fucking game.”

     And so I did. I hosed bullets at the rocks and trees, and Mary skittered to the door and then was into the building. And I stupidly stood there continuing to shoot when I should have been diving for cover, and suddenly I was pushed backward and sat down heavily and I looked down and there was a red hole in my chest. Now how did that happen, I thought groggily.  

     Then I woke up in a hospital bed.

     The Arena has the best trauma unit in the world; even if you’re severely wounded, your chances are good if you can stay alive until the event is over and the casualties can be evacuated. But the event is not over until it is over, and they usually last many long hours, and you bleed to death.I was lucky because the event was over within minutes after I was hit. As it was, I was in intensive care for a week and nearly died before they got me patched up. 

     It turned out we won, and I was the only casualty. The authorities were furious: not one convict was killed. It was the most bungled execution in the history of Montana.  

     Mary Whitlow was on the cover of People magazine again. She fought twice more within two weeks even though she hadn’t been required to. She’s killed six men. She now has 15 months of residency on the books.

     She wanted a very luxurious stay, I guess. Your pay in the Arena is based on royalties–Arena Events are available on a pay-per-view basis on cable channels. If you sign up for some highly publicized exotic Event, you could become a millionaire media star. If you lived.

     Then they told me that even though I’ve only been awake for a few hours, my time in the Arena Hotel is almost up. The Governor determined that since no convicts were killed, it was not a legitimate execution. Both teams were awarded one month of hotel time, but there are only two days of it left. I must either fight again, or go back to solitary confinement.

     I still have never seen the inside of the prison; I was in  ordinary high-security cells until the fight, and since then I’ve been in the hospital.

     When Mary found out that I was awake, she came right to my hospital bed. “Oh, Denver,” she said. “I have such a nice event picked out for us. We can make a fortune!”

     Tomorrow I have to decide again.